The outlook for Marshall Stewart Ball seemed heart-breakingly dire. After a difficult birth and failure to gain weight, he had begun to suffer seizures before the age of 1. At 3, he could neither walk nor talk, and baffled doctors told his parents that he was probably profoundly retarded and would likely die before age 10.
But Charles and Troylyn Ball would not give up on their son. They talked and read to him constantly and tried teaching him the alphabet. One afternoon, as Marshall sat on his mother’s lap, he leaned forward to hit, with his head, the “kitty” button on a toy that made animal sounds. When Troy asked him to do it again, he did, then proceeded to hit the right button for every animal she named. “I was excited and happy,” says Troy a decade later, recalling the breakthrough. “But we expected it. We tried not to focus on his physical limitations. We trusted him to be the perfect child.”
Marshall is not perfect—but he is uniquely blessed. He remains mute and virtually unable to move on his own because of his still-undiagnosed illness. (Its symptoms mirror cerebral palsy.) Even so, the Austin, Texas, 13-year-old has published Kiss of God: The Wisdom of a Silent Child, a collection of inspirational thoughts, missives and poems that has sold more than 80,000 copies. “The person who listens will be taught by God,” Ball writes, leading many readers to regard him as a teacher and prophet. Tapped out letter by letter on an alphabet board, his writings show a profound mastery of language and learning. “I am as puzzled as anybody by his abilities,” says Dr. Laurence Becker, a teacher who has worked with Marshall since 1992. Living in silence makes his world “so pushed in and limited,” Becker says, “but what comes out is very, very powerful.”
Marshall’s accomplishment marks a triumph of faith for Charlie, 43, an executive for Dell Computer, and Troy, 40, a real estate broker. (Their second son, Coulton, 11, has similar problems.) Ignoring the grim prognosis, the couple began using the alphabet board with Marshall when he was 5, supporting his elbow so he could move his arm to the appropriate letter. Testing at the University of Texas a year later confirmed he had third grade reading skills. Marshall began attending public school and by 9 was functioning at the level of a high school senior.
Though his physical therapist believes Marshall will be able to walk in a few years, the 4’2″, 41-lb. teenager remains in precarious health. Because of his susceptibility to colds, flu and pneumonia, he has been home-schooled for the past three years. To eliminate the possibility of allergic reactions, his parents, who spend $40,000 a year on tutors and caregivers, are building a hypoallergenic house of limestone, mesquite wood and nontoxic paint on a scenic ridge outside Austin. Marshall calls it “Listener’s Hill.”
Despite his frailties he likes to roughhouse in the pool, where he squeals with pleasure as Charlie tosses him in the air, then catches him as he hits the water. Marshall also enjoys being around his rambunctious adopted brother Luke, 6. “He’s here because Marshall said, ‘Momma needs a good baby,’ ” says Charlie. “He sensed we desired a normal family life.”
Though Marshall rarely uses his alphabet board to make everyday conversation, writing remains the focus of his life. When asked why, he answers, “Marshall loves the idea that thoughts can tame people.” And what writer does he most admire? Slowly, he spells out his answer: “That candid, quiet, good-thinking, lovely, victorious, excellent, teaching, meager Thoreau.”
Hilary Hylton in Austin